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This small box could be the future of building in outer space

MIT scientists built a microwave-sized box that could let astronauts build parts in space that can’t be made on Earth

Expedition 68 Flight Engineer and NASA spacewalker Josh Cassada prepares a rollout solar array for its deployment on the International Space Station's (ISS) Port-4 truss segment as the orbiting lab flew 262 miles above the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Namibia. (Frank Rubio/NASA)

Astronauts for decades have faced challenges building things in space. Now, researchers are trying to change that.

Backed by MIT’s Space Exploration Initiative, astronauts on board the International Space Station on Friday completed a roughly 45-day experiment using a small microwave-sized box that injects resin into silicone skins to build parts, such as nuts and bolts.

Now, after the parts travel back to Earth this weekend, scientists will evaluate the test pieces to examine whether they were made successfully — a process that could take weeks.

If so, it paves the way for astronauts to build huge parts that would be nearly impossible on Earth thanks to gravity and could upgrade space construction.

It lets you build and modify space stations “quicker, cheaper and with less complexity,” said Ariel Ekblaw, the founder of the Space Exploration Initiative. “It starts to unlock more opportunities for exploration.”

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The race to explore vast parts of space is fierce, and space stations are crucial to those efforts because they house astronauts and serve as research hubs.

But constructing and maintaining them is cumbersome and costly, researchers said, with dozens of parts made on Earth and individually shipped into space. And astronauts are then often required to float around and assemble them by hand.

Ekblaw and her team at MIT have several projects in the works to upgrade space construction. The current project, studying a process called extrusion, is the most experimental, Ekblaw said. Another initiative aims to create individual tiles that can self-assemble in space. The third revolves around origami-shaped connected tiles that unfold on their own.

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The box being studied, and earlier reported by Popular Science, works by injecting Earth-bought resin into silicone skins that can be made into the shapes of parts that are needed, Ekblaw said. Once the resin fills into the mold, ultraviolet light hardens the part.

If the process works, the benefits are twofold. Astronauts could use the machine to quickly build parts that need replacing, instead of having to wait for another rocket to send parts up from Earth. “If you had to wait for a screw to save your life on a station for two weeks as opposed to just being able to make it right then — that’s an obvious benefit toward safety,” she said.

In the longer term, Ekblaw added, space explorers could use the box to build parts that are very large, such as those that could hold solar panels or serve as the bones for space station housing. If space officials tried doing this on Earth, the parts would sag due to gravity, she said.

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Still, there are challenges ahead. Ekblaw said her construction experiments will need to undergo more tests, and each round of experiments requires launching parts into space, which can become costly.

And even if the methods are mastered and used to make next-generation space structures, there’s much to be done to make these environments livable, from radiation protection to building life-support systems and storing water and growing plants.

“There’s a … not totally blank slate, but nearly blank slate, that needs to be built up,” she said.

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